Little-known Gem Kicks off Opera Season

October 5th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

Some fine musical works are initially overshadowed by more illustrious creations by the same artist. For example, “Michelle” and “NoWhere Man” from the Beatles’ 1965 Rubber Soul album are excellent songs that were far more famous than “In My Life” which Rolling Stone magazine listed as the 23rd greatest song of all time in 2004.

A similar case can be made for Giacomo Puccini‘s opera, La Rondine. Perhaps the least known and performed of his mature works, its troubled creative origins and indifferent premiere reception relegated it to anonymity compared to La Boheme and Turandot. But the Minnesota Opera’s final dress rehearsal Thursday evening revealed an opera brimming with nostalgic love music and modern (for 1916) dance rhythms such as the tango.

Parisian high society at Magda’s apartment.

Dismissed by one critic as “bad Lehar” for its “lilting waltz tunes, pop-styled melodies, and nostalgic love music, La Rondine contains one of Puccini’s more accessible and melodic scores which befits the heroine Magda’s dilemma. This Parisian courtesan’s encounter with a naive young poet reawakens her desire for a life filled with genuine affection (the life she wants) versus a successful and secure existence in the highest realms of Parisian society (the life she has). Magda’s conflict might resemble Violetta’s in Verdi’s La Traviata, but the decision she makes isn’t adulterated by the melodramatic complication of tuberculosis.

The cast provides splendid singing and nuanced interpretation to their roles regardless. Celine Byrne is glorious as Magda in revealing the pathos and longing for a life she can never have. Leonardo Capalbo is equally fine as her beleaguered and bewildered young lover. Levi Hernandez (Magda’s protector, Rambaldo), Lisa Marie Rogali (Magda’s flirty maid Lisette) and Christian Sanders (the cynical poet, Prunier) provide excellent counterpoints both musically and thematically as secondary characters. The rest of the cast embody hedonistic Parisian society during the First World War with sonic gusto.

La Rondine may be derivative and a bit under-formulated (Puccini was rewriting the third act at the time of his death), but its glorious score and soaring arias make the five presentations (October 6, 9, 11, 13-14) more than worthwhile viewing for opera and music lovers alike. Congratulations to you, Minnesota Opera, for taking a chance in my lifetime to kick off the 2018-19 season with this under-appreciated gem.

Soul and Inspiration from Central Asia

October 4th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

Entrance to Tamerlane the Great’s tomb.

As stated on my Facebook page, my wife and I returned from a two week trip to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last Friday evening. After answering our friends’ initial question “Where is that?” (Central Asia), their follow-up is some variant of “What prompted you to go there?”

My wife’s reply usually centers around the mystery and romance that surround the Silk Road, the caravan route that connected China with the eastern Mediterranean in Roman and medieval times. Mine is a little more nuanced and esoteric: Marlowe’s mighty line.

Let me explain. The term arises from Elizabethan author, Ben Jonson, who in assessing the poets and playwrights of his day, was referring to the language and style of the most prominent among them, Christopher Marlowe. At this point, in 1593, William Shakespeare had some theatrical successes, but pre-eminent among contemporary playwrights was Marlowe who sought to rid his plays “From jigging veins of riming mother wits” and replace the dialogue with more natural language, what we’ve come to know as iambic pentameter or blank verse.

To accomplish this transformation, his plays featured bold, assertive, and iconic protagonists like Edward II and Doctor Faustus. The most famous of these heroes appears in his Tamburlaine The Great, the play about the Scythian shepherd who tempts Fortune’s wheel (What today we would call beating the house) by “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”

The extent of Tamerlane’s empire.

Like Marlowe’s other protagonists, Tamburlaine would succumb to the Wheel’s turning and be brought low (see Tamburlaine, Part II). But, for the entirety of the first part, Marlowe’s avatar sweeps all before him–like his central Asian counterpart who restored most of Genghis Khan’s empire established a century and a half earlier.

For a 20-old undergraduate English major facing an uncertain future (the selective service draft for the Vietnam War had just been established), this play was a revelation. Instead of novels depicting niceties of British etiquette and table manners, here was a story with a red-blooded character who swept all before him. Reading Marlowe’s epic may have been a form of wish fulfillment much as contemporary young men find solace and inspiration in the exploits of superheroes, but Tamburlaine’s exploits, more important his strength of character, provided a model for the inspiration and resolution needed to face the unknown terrors that may and did lay ahead of me.

Tamerlane’s sarcophagus in the center is made of dark green jade.

For those reasons, I thought then that some day I’d like to visit the origins of the real-life person who inspired Marlowe’s creation. Visiting Tamerlane’s tomb and birthplace 50 years later fulfilled that ambition to experience the environment hammered by the sun which forged the steel will of his conqueror’s soul and made the world tremble at his name.

Labor Day accident reactions, post-facto

September 5th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

Labor Day morning I witnessed an auto-truck accident. It happened at the intersection of 31st Street and Bloomington Avenue. I had stopped at the intersection on my way to the post office when a black pickup truck slammed into a blue subcompact right in front of me. “OHMYGOD!” I exclaimed as the blue car spun around and the black truck careened toward my car. Somehow, the driver gained enough control to miss my front end and come to a stop at the curb beside me.

I drove through the intersection, parked my car by the deposit box, and got out, uncertain what to do. The smashed blue car leaked radiator fluid into the street as its young male driver got out and pulled his frightened son out of his car seat in back. Neither was hurt though the shaken toddler whimpered for a while beside his father.

The driver of the truck emerged some moments later and helped his female passenger out of the cab. Aside from the cloth covering her right temple, neither of them seemed to be injured. When I asked the onlookers standing across the street if someone had called 9-1-1, one man assured me they had been phoned so I dropped my electricity bill payment into the mailbox and waited for the police.

The EMT ambulance arrived within minutes, two police squad cars a moment or two later. The damaged subcompact was pushed out of the intersection, radiator fluid still leaking onto the street from under its smashed hood as the EMTs helped the injured woman into the ambulance and the police asked questions.

Three takeaways from the incident:

1. Despite the ferocity of the collision, the blue subcompact’s collapsible front-end design and airbags protected father and son from serious injury. Modern technology often shields us from more tragic results of our personal catastrophes.

2. Incidents like this occur so quickly that I couldn’t recall the exact sequence of events though they happened right before me. I Barely had I braced myself for the impact of the truck careening into my car before the truck stopped at the curb beside me. Lawyers say witnesses mis-recall or make up details of disastrous events all the time. Neurologists claim it’s the brain’s built-in mechanism to rest itself from focusing all the time. Whether mine was due to my brain’s adaptive self-protection or a simple lack of attention, I cannot say. It was only when I began to piece events together afterward that I formulated a logical and coherent narrative of what must have occurred, accurate or not.

3. Finally, tempting as it is to blame the driver of the truck for speeding or inattentive driving, I, too, was in a hurry to drop off my bill and get on with my day. That’s why I dropped it in the mailbox before I checked on the drivers of the two vehicles. Other people had gathered around the vehicles which caused me to think the occupants were all right, but absorption in my own inconsequential affairs motivated my passive reaction to the event. Though I stuck around until the injured woman was driven off in the ambulance and police offered the father and son a ride home, my impressions of the incident given to the female police officer documenting the accident seem detached and self-serving.

The lesson taken from this affair: be attentive while driving. Calamity can happen even if you’re obeying the traffic laws. How long my resurrected sense of driver diligence will last is anyone’s guess.

So, am I being overly sensitive or insufficiently critical of my actions? What do you think?

Oh, Pun Season

June 27th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

If you’ve come from my Facebook page, here are some more puns to groan over during the 4th of July weekend, some with comments:

(This first one might appeal more to the baby-boomer crowd)
1. “Doc, I can’t stop singing The Green, Green Grass of Home.”
“That sounds like Tom Jones Syndrome.”
“Is it comm

2. Two cows are standing next to each other in a field.
Daisy says to Dolly, “I was artificially inseminated this morning.”
“I don’t believe you,” says Dolly.

3. An invisible man marries an invisible woman. The kids were nothing to look at either.

4. Deja Moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bull before

5. I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day, but I couldn’t find any.

6. A man woke up in a hospital after a serious accident.
He shouted, “Doctor, doctor, I can’t feel my legs!”
The doctor replied, “I know, I amputated your arms!”

7. I went to a seafood disco last week … and pulled a mussel.

8. What do you call a fish with no eyes? A fsh.

9. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!”

(These later ones are more complex and challenging)
10. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Not surprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.

12. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel, and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came out of the office, and asked them to disperse.
“But why,” they asked, as they moved off..
“Because,” he said. “I can’t stand chess-nuts boasting in an open foyer.”

13. A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt, and is named ‘Ahmal.’ The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him ‘Juan.’ Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, “They’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Ahmal.”

14. Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him (oh, man, this is so bad, it’s good) … a super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

15. A dwarf, who was a mystic, escaped from jail. The call went out that there was a small medium at large.

16. And finally, there was the person who sent twenty different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least half of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

Would you agree? Or are puns a waste of pixels? Comment below.

Consider the Audio-book Alternative

June 8th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

How often do you read books? How often do you listen to ’em? Do you prefer one communication method over the other?

These are some of the questions Marshall Davis of Davis Sound, LLC, addressed in his presentation to the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime monthly meeting at St Peder’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Tuesday evening (June 5, 2018). Previously an engineering manager for Seagate Technology, Davis launched his audio recording, video production, and editing services company in April, 2012. Since then he and the rest of the country have experienced exponential growth in the production of audio books, roughly 20-30 percent per year over the last five years, to become “the fastest growing part of the publishing industry.”

Despite his personal involvement in the business, his presentation provided a reasoned, cost-benefit approach to authors considering whether or not to market their books in audio format. Besides weighing the pros and cons of the flat-rate (potentially larger return) versus the royalty approach (no upfront costs) investment approach, he discussed the benefits of hiring a professional reader and, most significantly, provided an estimated cost analysis for a professional company like his to produce a completed audio book based on the number of words needed to be read.

While many in the audience, myself included, calculated in their heads or on scratch sheets whether such a production outlet might prove feasible for their latest opus, Davis added that the ultimate success or failure of such a venture depended upon a variety factors. Among these he included genre (memoirs provide the smallest percentage of overall sales; thrillers the highest), distributor arrangements (Amazon-owned Audible is the largest distributor by far, but there are others), high and low volume/revenue percentages based on hard cover/paperback sales, and series/bundling potential. Based on an Amazon exclusive agreement, Davis stated “In general, you would need to sell about 300-400 audiobooks to pay for the production cost(s).”

Despite appearing a lucrative revenue source for authors, Davis cautioned that audio book sales represent only three per cent of all titles sold in this country. However, people more than ever (millennials in particular) are “interested in [the] telling of a story.” With decreasing time and patience for involving leisure activities, audio books offer a viable format for authors, producers, and readers alike.

What do you think?

YA Fiction Stoked My Love for the Derby

May 2nd, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

The draw for post positions for the 144th Kentucky Derby happened yesterday (Tuesday), and though I have little to no idea who the winner will be (Justify has the most publicity and is the favorite), I can tell you how this race influenced me into becoming a writer.

To do that we have to go back in time to provide some context. Before movies and books about Secretariat and Seabiscuit dominated the media outlets of this country in the early 2000s, stories about several fictional horses dominated the publishing and television worlds. National Velvet celebrated steeple-chasing through running in England’s Grand National and Mary O’Hara‘s part-mustang corralled horse-related sensibilities of American TV audiences with the series “My Friend Flicka.” A dearth of equine counterparts characterized what little American fiction that took place in horse racing settings.

Until Walter Farley came along. Most of you probably know him as the author of the novel, The Black Stallion which was adapted into a lyrically visual and faithfully accurate screenplay in the 1979 movie of the same name. Though the first novel culminates in a match race modeled after the real life race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral some years earlier, the novel and its sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, made into a movie four years later, are primarily adventure stories set in exotic locales that detail and celebrate the bond between a boy (Alec Ramsey) and his horse (The Black).

But undersized teenage boys do grow up and must enter the adult world. Unlike Hollywood which jettisoned the saga about The Black after Alec restored him to his rightful Arabian owner, Walter Farley faced the dilemma of what to do with his popular, teenage hero. The answer: The Son of the Black Stallion. And after that, the reuniting of the original pairing in The Black Stallion and Satan (his son). In the process Alec Ramsey transforms from a reluctant, naive jockey into a small business entrepreneur who owns his own breeding farm in the later novels in the series.

What does this have to do with my interest in horse racing, particularly the Derby? Well, in the long fictional tradition of Americans trying to save their farms (The Grapes of Wrath is one example) Alec is forced to defy tradition again by entering a daughter of The Black, Black Minx, in the Kentucky Derby. Originally published in 1952, long before the real life female exploits of Genuine Risk and Winning Colors which won the Roses in 1980 and 1988 respectively, The Black Stallion’s Filly reflects the bias of the time that quality female horses could not compete against well-bred males. Another outsider story in keeping with the exploits of her sire, Farley deftly portrayed the prejudice and excitement in Alec’s desperate bid to save his livelihood by defying thoroughbred racing orthodoxy. That story and its sequel, The Black Stallion’s Courage, provide fine insights into machinations of thoroughbred racing as practiced in the 1950s.

I devoured both of these books in my early teens, rereading them again and again until their dust jackets crumpled into shreds. Alec and The Black’s exploits ultimately ventured into other fictional genre realms of mystery, science fiction and archaeology (The Island Stallion) series, and spin-offs such as harness racing (The Blood Bay Colt) and equine treatment (The Horse Tamer). Meanwhile, my fictional interests expanded into those areas along with history and metaphysics (The Razor’s Edge). My nascent interest in horse-racing transferred to the real life pageantry and lore that surrounds horse-racing–here, in Europe, and around the world.

I’ve never enjoyed the gambling aspect of horse racing (I have placed a bet or two–some successful) nor have I ever ridden a thoroughbred (my only horseback riding experience ended in my clinging to the saddle horn for dear life while my ancient gray gelding cantered back to the bag of oats in his stall), but I retain a fondness for racing life. As such, the Kentucky Derby still thrills me as the premium example of America’s contribution to the “sport of kings.”

What do you think about the Kentucky Derby? Or horse racing in general? And Walter Farley–what is your favorite work of his? I only mentioned Flame, the Island Stallion, in passing. Do you think he’s the better horse? I find Steve Duncan’s story of how he and his friend Pitch found Flame on a deserted Caribbean Island to be more thrilling and compelling. What do you think?

Rigoletto May Not Be for Everyone

March 16th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

What entertains opera audiences today is the same as it was in 19th century Italy or 18th century Austria. The orchestration and vocalizations in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor or Don Giovanni are as thrilling now as the evenings of their first performances.

What differs is in the plotting. Born out of the cultural mores and sensibilities of their times, the plot lines of these operas contain dramatic conventions and holes in motivation that are unacceptable and/or offensive to modern audiences. A current of this occurs in the Minnesota Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto (March 17, 22, 24-25, 27, 29, 31, 2018).

This disjunction in values is nowhere more pronounced than in the Duke of Mantua’s beautiful aria in the third act, the famous “La donna é mobile.” As sung by the opera’s philandering authority figure, the song is more a projection of male vanity than a pronouncement on female fickleness. And while the duets between Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda, are tender and heart-felt, his characterization of her as an innocent angel under his (unwanted) fatherly protection confines her to a room only he can enter. Rigoletto’s attitude toward authority figures might be somewhat justified by the ruffian behavior of the duke and his courtiers, but it doesn’t soften the impact of his bitter and calculating hiring of a professional assassin to avenge his honor.

What salvages all of this boorishness, bullying, and backstabbing is the beauty of Verdi’s music. This is where the Opera’s creative team shines. Conductor Michael Christie’s orchestra, leads Olafur Sigurdarson (Rigoletto), Marie-Eve Munger (the ill-fated Gilda), and Joshua Dennis (Duke of Mantua) soar with the music to make the passions that motivate it palpable and believable. The other cast members, particularly those serving in the duke’s retinue and chorus, provide superior sonic and emotional support, as always. The lighting and costume design, especially the colorful masks in Act II, serve its dark actions well, as do the economical if sometimes confounding (doorbell on a courtier’s back?) scenic design.

Some of this disjunction may be attributed to Verdi’s source material. Musical historians claim Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse suffered the same bureaucratic censure that afflicted Verdi’s opus. But regardless of its source or the cultural circumstances surrounding it, Rigoletto’s controversial attitudes towards contractual murder and treatment of women in an age of anti-gun and Me Too movements cannot be denied. As with any work of art, however, final judgment must rest in the eyes and ears of the individual. Attend a performance and decide yourself if beauties of music and style outweigh the affronts imposed by convention and stereotype.

First Announcement for 2018 Author Events

February 2nd, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

Just confirmed that I will appear at the “Hopping into Spring” Craft & Gift Show at the Hippodrome Ice Arena on April 28, 2018 (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.). More announcements to come as my scheduled commitments are confirmed.

Keep watching here and on my Events calendar for schedule updates and details.

Serious Praise for Dead Man Walking

January 27th, 2018 by Goose | Permalink

The casual opera-goer (like myself) tends to associate its content with light-hearted fluff, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the opera buffa most commonly performed. Even work dealing with more serious subject matter, opera seria, such as Donizetti’s Luchia di Lammermoor or Puccini’s Madame Butterfly distance themselves in terms of space and time from their audiences.

Not so with Dead Man Walking. Right from the start the dress rehearsal of its Twin Cities premiere at the Ordway Theatre grabbed the audience by the throat with its grisly and horrifying reenactment of twin murders and never let up. But its intensity derives not from whether the murderer, John De Rocher, will have justice served upon him, but whether he and his chosen confidante, Sister Helen Prejean, will have the strength to guide one another to redemption.

Though the story grinds through the machinations of the Louisiana state criminal justice system, the appeals on his behalf serve as a backdrop for an examination of De Rocher’s sense of guilt and possible expiation. Sister Helen must bear her own cross as the woman who has promised to share the horror of the condemned man’s experience to its terrifying, lonely end on the executioner’s table.

Both leads provide gut-wrenching performances. Seth Carico as De Rocher makes the condemned man’s resolute maintenance of innocence to disguise his fear of dying almost palpable. Catherine Martin as Sister Helen has the more difficult task of assuaging De Rocher’s fears while guiding him to the peace and courage that acknowledging his culpability might bring. Both of them pull off the difficult trick of letting the tenor in their singing convince the audience of their characters’ emotional and moral transformations.

Special note must be given to Emily Pulley as De Rocher’s mother. Her performance sets the tone of unstinting love and forgiveness that we sometimes witness in televised criminal trials but seldom share. Karen Slack as Sister Rose, Benjamin Sieverding as warden George Benton, Dennis Petersen as the sanctimonious Father Grenville, and the other cast members contribute fine, individualized performances which reflect the gamut of local social consciousness and moral outrage.

Some contemporary operas might examine the themes of love and hate, fear and longing, or hope and redemption; few make you experience them. Terence McNally (lyrics) and Jake Heggie’s (music) opera accomplishes that. If you enjoy serious opera and have a chance to see it (Tickets available for January 27-28, 30, and February 1, 3), do so. You’ll never regret it.

Don Pasquale: Bumbling in Hollywood

October 7th, 2017 by Goose | Permalink

Re-imaginings of old operas sometimes work; many times, they don’t. When the Metropolitan Opera set Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Nazi Germany, for example, the depravity in the second act resonated with contemporary audiences but the spiritual majesty in finding the Holy Grail in the third did not.

The Minnesota Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale witnessed on Social Media Preview Night (October 5, 2017) needn’t worry about upsetting anyone’s moral convictions, however. Subtitled “A Toast to Tinseltown,” this version pulls all the comedic stops in celebrating the opera buffa on which it is based.

But resetting a mid-19th century Italian opera in 1950s Hollywood creates a problem. Do the operatic conventions based upon the stylized shenanigans of commedia dell’arte fit into the mores of Hollywood’s Golden Age? The answer: surprisingly well.

Casting the eponymous main character as a fading film star a la Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn provides some amusing film clips of his failures to recapture old glory that accompany the overtures preceding each act. And re-imagining Norina in the conniving servant’s role as a sultry starlet renders the egotistic Don’s marital comeuppances funnier and more believable.

However, the plot of the Don’s cutting off his lovesick nephew’s allowance to sire a proper heir addresses the economic concerns of Risorgimento Italy instead of the Babylon of Hollywood. Anyone with a passing acquaintance of pre-nuptial agreements and equal property settlements knows the paradise of eternal sunshine and plastic surgery pays little shrift to the financial plights of impoverished lovers.

Despite the plot’s unlikelihood, the performers capitalize upon the comedic potential in their characters. Craig Colclough makes a sprightly, foppish, yet sympathetic Don Pasquale. Andrew Wilkowske plays the role the conniving Doctor Malatesta to an over-the-top T. And David Walton (the pining Ernesto) and Susannah Miller (Norina/Sofronia) combine to create an empathetic pair of lovers. All of them (particularly Miller and Walton in the love duet) and the supporting players and chorus make this perhaps the most melodic of Donizetti’s operas.

If you go expecting a satire on Hollywood, you might be disappointed. If you enjoy beautiful music, colorful sets, and a frothy romantic farce that uses the mythos of Tinseltown to spoof the foibles of advanced middle-age, you’ll experience a laugh-filled evening of entertainment. Performances take place on October 7, 10, 12, 14-15, 2017. Enjoy!